In the decade after its 1981 release, My Dinner with André was canonized as de rigueur art-house viewing, not to mention spoofing, and even 30 years later it stands as one of the pinnacles of East Coast intellectual experimentation and, to some, stuffiness. The film’s style has few explicit disciples, in spite of its throng of ardent fans: Even they seem to understand that the uniquely indulgent premise of two distinct aesthetic schools sharing wine, bread, and words over a three-course meal was a one-shot deal that could never be duplicated or even expanded upon without feeling as stale as last week’s baguette.
Granted, obstreperously non-cinematic garrulousness on the big screen did not begin or end with the collaborative efforts of Louis Malle, Wallace Shawn, and André Gregory. What are Eric Rohmer’s moral tales but verbose allegories daintily wrapped in crêpe-thin plots? And surely Spalding Gray, though he has his detractors, milked more dramatic tension from a single microphone and a smattering of Spartan props than either Shawn or Gregory considered necessary. But where Rohmer’s philosophical illustrations burble with phallic self-parody (aren’t all the conversations rather glibly, and delightfully, about sex?) and Gray’s Dionysian ramblings have more in common with stream-of-consciousness, neo-Beat memoirs than with critical dialogues, My Dinner with André is one of the few entrancingly esoteric, radically raw dialectics ever filmed.
The two actors staunchly deny that they were portraying even fictionalized versions of themselves despite some autobiographical details, and they’re clearly not fibbing: The distinctions between André and Wally at the dinner table, both in perspective and articulation, are too neatly opposed, too conveniently complementary. Even physically the duo match up like a homely, Upper East Side riff on Abbot and Costello with male pattern baldness and Semitic idioms. But in spite of the fictionalized material, Shawn and Gregory were honestly depicting a mutual frustration with the changing timbre of the New York theater scene (this was in the years before Disney stepped in and bought out Broadway, mind you), and how this artistic discouragement could be centrifugally applied to the rampant empirical malaise of American society.
The epistemological alarmism seems more boringly spacey today than it did in the ’80s (Gregory’s assertion that U.S. citizens live in “a dream world” has been turgidly echoed in every sci-fi adaptation of Plato’s allegory of the cave), but the manner in which Gregory and Shawn challenge the artifice of modern comfort is far more pithy, and less epic (i.e. less Judeo-Christian) than either The Matrix or a textual/cultural antecedent like Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. While they debate semantics (for example, whether bounding across rural Poland in one’s birthday suit is truly a realistic path to enlightenment), what both men agree on is the necessity of self-awareness over the comfy tyranny of rationalism that tells one to find a career, collect wealth, and shop: These artists favor acute sentience over nebulous sapience.
Much has been made of the fact that Wallace Shawn’s on-screen persona seems to reject, or at least hesitate toward embracing, his companion’s desperately numinous credo by clinging to contemporary comforts. Indeed, the majority of the film’s first half consists of hypnotizing monologues from Gregory, recounting his globe-trotting adventures with Saturnalian drama troupes in Europe and South Asia—including one iris-dilating tale about being symbolically interred alive that should be required study in rudimentary theater classes. The conversation then transitions to Shawn’s practical rebuttals: Why should he demand anything more from life than the simply joy of a cup of coffee and, more importantly, knowing for a fact that the coffee will be there when he rises every morning? In one scene, Shawn insists that he wouldn’t give up his electric blanket even for Bodhisattva because of primitive, somatic demands: New York is cold, the blanket is warm. But, Gregory insists, forgetting that New York is cold—isolating one’s self from the painful reminders of external conditions—will inevitably lead to alienation, not only from one’s environment but from one’s self as well. Shawn represents our incredulousness. Isn’t the electric blanket a clear enough indicator of winter?
In retrospect, these disagreements between Shawn and Gregory don’t so much represent the tidy compartments of blue pill and red pill ideologies (though that may have been the original intention, albeit in more lofty terms) as they do the various thinking man’s responses to midlife crisis. Both individuals felt, by their 40s, that they had failed to attain the theatrical celebrity into which they had been bred, and their conflicting view points represent two equally viable options to professional disillusionment. You can either retreat into or maniacally strip away your domestic duties, your paltry social achievements, and your misunderstood friendships; you can distastefully scowl at or eagerly sprint after snake oil gurus; you can ignore the spry specter of spiritual purpose or you can chase him through wacky dramatic exercises, Eastern narcotics, and Saint-Exupéry handprints.
These attempts at numbing or intensifying the doors of perception are mere coping mechanisms for the approaching finality of death and the artistic end game it implies. Gregory admits as much in one late, understated discussion, and applying this observation to his earlier remarks about occidental consciousness is telling. What is American culture but a flashy, pompous tribe obsessed with immortality and invincibility? Had My Dinner with André been released after 9/11 the metaphors need not have been so arabesque.
This “moral,” if we can call it that, and the dramatic prowess of the two stars, transform an insular, inane idea for a stage sketch into a clever powerhouse of a movie that easily brushes aside every scurrilous critique that has been leveled against it. It’s not simply filmed theater: The punctilious recreation of a posh New York restaurant and Louis Malle’s patient, nearly invisible camera work see to that. And despite the film’s reputation as a celluloid sleeping pill there are elements that veer toward commercialism. Wallace Shawn’s voiceovers, for example, are rather didactic expressions of his character’s dynamism: His gradual realization that the drudgery of money-obsessed, proletariat living is just as soul-squeezing as a culturally intrepid existence offers the film a highly accessible conflict and resolution. Even those who thumb their nose at the claustrophobic depiction of the art world herein forget Jean Lenauer’s glaring waiter, a clear reminder throughout that there is a quotidian world beyond the inebriated egg of André and Wally’s table.
But what an egg it is. “It has something to do with living,” as Gregory whimsically observes, but it’s also a heady exemplar of the now moribund art of conversation. When André and Wally wax poetic, time is suspended to allow the expedient passage of diverse ideas. Some melt like organic sugar on the tongue, and others are so formidable and foreboding we must approach them cautiously with a knife and fork, ingesting them piecemeal. The fact that people don’t talk like this in real life isn’t a flaw in the film: It’s a tragic social deficiency.